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Ancient carvings contain astronomical symbolism

The astronomical significance of Kerbstone 51, the "Stone of the Seven Suns", at Dowth
This is one of the most beautiful Neolithic carvings known to exist in Ireland. It is kerbstone 51, located on the eastern side of the great kerb around the cairn of Dowth, and its significance as an astronomical stone has never been doubted. It contains what appear to be suns, or stars, with rays coming out from the centre, and with the whole surrounded by a circle. There are seven of these suns in total, six of which are contained within circles.

K51 by candlelight

Attempts have been made to explain the meaning of these symbols – some say they are representations of the sun at different times of the year, others say they represent celestial bodies such as comets. One thing seems certain – they represent heavenly bodies of some form.

There is a new theory as to the meaning of these symbols, one which reveals a duality of meaning, and an ancient knowlegde of the complex movements of the heavens.

Taurus, the Pleiades, Spring Equinox and Precession

It is to mythology, and particularly the ancient story about how Dowth was built, which reveals an ancient astronomical symbolism which may help to explain something about the meaning of the 'Place of Darkness'. The story comes from the Dindshenchas, a collection of ancient stories about Irish placenames, and concerns Bresal, who was the ruler of the time.

"In his time there fell a murrain on kine in every place in Ireland, except for seven cows and a bull that increased strength for every farmer in his time. By him is built the solid hill in the likeness of Nimrod's tower, so that from it he might pass to heaven, - that is the cause why it was undertaken". The story continues to tell how Bresal's sister stopped the Sun from moving so that there would be 'no night but bright day' until work reached completion. Unfortunately, they committed incest and the Sun went down . . .

The men of Erin left the task incomplete, saying: ". . . since darkness has fallen upon our work, and night has come on and the day is gone, let each depart to his place. Dubad (darkness) shall be the name of this place for ever." (Source: Metrical Dindshenchas)

The position of the Sun in Taurus on the Spring Equinox in 3000BC. In this position there would have been a 'heliacal rising' of the Pleiades, or "Seven Sisters" at that time.

Given that there are seven "suns" on kerb 51, and that the mythology about Dowth speaks of a bull and seven cows, it seems likely that the site has some connection with the constellation of Taurus, the Bull, which contains the open cluster the Pleiades, otherwise known as "The Seven Sisters". This constellation was very important around the year 3000BC, when the Boyne Valley mounds were being constructed, as it contained the Sun on the Spring Equinox, that very important moment of the year when the Sun's path along the ecliptic crossed the celestial equator heading northwards. It is the Sun's position among the zodiac stars at this time which determines the current 'age' – i.e. the "Age of Taurus".

Another interesting phenomenon which occurs at this time is what is known to astronomers as a 'heliacal rising' of the Pleiades. This happens when the stars in question rise at the eastern horizon but are quickly lost in the glare of the rising sun. It is interesting to note that the Egyptians, and the Dogon tribe in Africa, among others, used the same Dowth-like 'sun-wheel' symbols to signify a heliacal rising.

One of the 'sun' symbols on Kerb 51
A double concentric circle on K51

If these 'sun-wheel' symbols do represent the heliacal rising of the Pleiades, it tells us something very significant about the Neolithic people – they were aware of the great cycle of precession, the slow wobble of the Earth's axis which causes the celestial pole to shift over time, resulting in the Vernal Equinox point, that place where the Sun crosses the celestial equator, moving backwards, or westwards, through the Zodiac over a huge 25,800-year period. This Vernal point moves just one degree (about two widths of the full moon) every 72 years, and spends on average 2,150 years in each of the twelve constellations of the Zodiac.

Kerb51 by candlelight

The Metonic Cycle

Another interesting point about these symbols is the amount of strokes, or rays, which appear to emanate from the sun symbols. There are a total of 116 notches, counted on the individual sun-wheels as follows (see diagram below): (1) 14, (2) 14, (3) 17, (4) 14, (5) 18, (6) 15, (7) 24. 116 days represents four synodic periods of the Moon, the most basic breakdown of the sequence of the Metonic cycle. If we take out the count for circle three (17 notches) we get 99 notches, which could just be an indicator of the eight-year, 99 synodic lunar month Metonic period.

Back of K51

Detail on the rear of Kerbstone 51 at Dowth. These designs are little known about and contrast in style to the sun-like patterns on the front face of the stone.

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